Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why it only takes one false step to fall into the cultural divide

The other night Hervé and I had just finished up dinner at an adorable little restaurant close to Notre Dame, and were preparing to meet my old roommate, Fred, and some of his friends for drinks on rue Mouffetard. We sat around idly for a while, as you do in French restaurants after finishing dinner, wine bottle drained, water pitcher emptied, the last crumbs long scraped from plates. For those of you who haven't yet experienced a meal out in France, it is a fundamentally different affair than a dinner out in the U.S., or many other parts of the world, I would venture to guess. In the event that this information may one day prove useful to someone, somewhere, here are some things it is important to know regarding Your French Dining Experience:

1. Your waiter will never greet you jovially or say "Hi, my name is Pierre and I'll be your server tonight!"
2. Your will never receive your main course until everyone at the table has finished their appetizer and their plates have been cleared.
3. No one will ever take your plate before you have finished eating or hover over you asking "So are you finished with that?" while you are mid-bite.
4. There are no free refills. Even asking for more water is touch and go. You can generally ask the waiter to refill the carafe once, but any more than that and you will get The Eye.
5. Coffee is only drunk after dinner, never before or during, and it is espresso.
6. Soda doesn't come with ice. It's also expensive. Best order wine instead.
7. The waiter will never, ever bring the check until you ask for it. Even after the last plate has been cleared and he asks, "So, do you need anything else?" and you say no, assuming that that means he will now bring the check. He will not. He will never even suggest the existence of a check. You can wait for hours but he will not bring the check until the words "Check please," with or without accompanying universal-invisible-pencil-scribbly-hand gesture, have crossed your lips.

So now that that's out of the way... As I was saying, I had just finished dinner with Hervé, and we were at number 7 on the list, otherwise known as sighing, looking bored, and scanning the room for the waiter who is never to be found. The French, I have found, are understandably more laid back about this process than I am. As I am American, however, and a bit type A at that, I want things to be quick and efficient and yes I want to relax and enjoy this meal but let's be a little bit logical about it, too. Now, I have no problem with any other step of the process, and I am fine with the wait between courses and lingering over wine and coffee and dessert, but once the meal is actually over and crumbs have been scraped and contented sighs uttered, I want to get the show on the road. I mean, seriously. What are we supposed to do now? Talk? Check, please. The French are not particularly take-charge, or even that concerned in this situation, perhaps thinking to offhandedly mention the check if the waiter happens to pass directly next to the table and if he happens to pause long enough to listen. On the night in question it was starting to look like this particular combination of events might never happen, and as we had plans to meet people afterward, when I saw the waiter approach I decided to take matters in hand. I caught his eye, and when he asked if there was something I wanted, I said, "Yes, the check, please."

"Ah!" he exclaimed in surprise, as he looked back and forth between Hervé and me. "Ca c'est quelque chose!" ("Well, isn't that something!") (Said with his head cocked back and that extra little bit of attitude only a gay man can give.) He walked away to get the check while I made wide eyes, not sure exactly what I had done, but deducing that I had commited a faux pas (literally "false step") of some sort. After a few seconds of baffled reflection, I determined that apparently when a man and a woman are dining together in France, it is considered unseemly or perhaps emasculating for the woman to ask for the check. Even if seconds later the check in question will be split tidily down the middle by both parties, in accordance with the modern times in which we live, apparently the man must still ask for the check, lest a homosexual waiter then subtley undermine his masculinity. Ok, noted.

This most recent of no-nos joins a litany of other practices in which a woman may not engage in a restaurant in France while in the presence of a male dining companion, some others of which I have found through experience to include:

1. A woman may not order the wine.
2. A woman may not serve herself wine.

Number one has never bothered me, as I am more than happy to let someone with more oenological knowledge than myself bear the responsibility of the wine selection. I am also not entirely bothered by number two, which is an unspoken rule that I picked up on fairly quickly while living with my host family in Grenoble years ago. When dining out I don't particularly want to exert any more effort than raising my fork to my mouth, and so I am perfectly content to hand over wine glass replenishment duties. Now, with this unspoken rule come certain unspoken responsibilities for the man, which are that he is supposed to serve the woman or women he is accompanying before himself, and he is supposed to be attentive to the state of affairs of the empty glasses around him. I say supposed to, and the downside to this rule is if you have a particularly talkative or distractible companion you may end up staring forlornly into your empty glass for quite a while. And while this rule may not be particularly convenient, and while it may not do anything to advance the women's rights movement, at least I understand this rule.

But this latest cultural misunderstanding really threw me for a loop. I mean, really. We had places to be, the waiter approached Hervé from behind so I was the only one who could see him coming, and it's not like he was paying for me anyway. Why wouldn't I ask for the check? I tried to imagine this situation occurring in an American restaurant and couldn't. It would never happen. (An indignant "This would never happen in America!" being one of my preferred catch phrases/war cries here. Sometimes I am a delight to be around.) In America you could eat your entire meal with your elbows and then burp the alphabet afterwards and your waiter would still smile and tell you to have a nice day. In a tip-based culture judgements by the wait staff are carefully concealed and "The customer is always right" is a mantra (most commonly touted by the customers themselves, and almost always when they are most certainly not right). So I am fairly certain the woman half of a couple asking for the check in an American restaurant wouldn't provoke so much as the bat of an eyelash. But here is my question, which goes out to anyone who has ever worked in the restaurant industry: Granted, you wouldn't comment out loud about a woman asking for the check, but would you still think it was odd?

Am I going crazy here? When did France turn into 1950s America? Or is this a universal faux pas that I have been committing unknowingly for the entirety of my adult life? And most importantly, does anyone know if Miss Manners has texting capability??? (I bet she probably only accepts letters written out longhand on monogrammed stationery and delivered via carrier pigeon, no?) Internet, I need your opinion.


  1. I still can't the basic rules of letting a guy open the door for me - it always results in awkward door situations.

    I had a restaurant faux pas in Australia just last night. I asked for the "check, please" and the waitress stared at me blankly. for a while. so i repeated myself. and she was like "the check....the check" and then wondered off. And my Australian friend was all "we call it the bill..." I've lived here for over a year and a half and NOW someone tells me this?

  2. Just try being a married woman in France with a different last name than your husband! They don't get it at all which, given that they seem rather relaxed about people having children without being married, surprised me.

  3. I don't think a female asking for the "bill" (yes, up here in Canada we also say bill, not check) is odd. I don't even think it is odd for a woman to pay for a meal every once in awhile....

  4. In the days when I "dined" via the drive-through at McDonalds, I always said "check please" when I pulled up to the window. It was the polite thing to do. I did get stares.

    But I hear you. Having experienced most of Europe as soldier and civilian over many years and eaten at hundreds of resturants, I think most countries bordering the Mediterranean have a huge cultural gap: their manners are definitely old school when it comes to gender roles. Italy, Spain, and Greece are similar. But I liked the no-rush approach (and the really tasty wines). I shall return.

  5. all this from the girl who made 4 friendlies waitresses quit!

  6. It's wrong of me, but I think it would give me pause. Not because I would feel the man was emasculated, but because it would seem like she was in hurry to leave, and he was not. I'm nosy, and I would take a minute to speculate why.

  7. No, I don’t think it’s strange at all for a woman to ask for the check when she’s dining with a male companion – I’m usually the one who is more conscious of the time and what we need to do next, so I’m usually the one who asks for the check. If someone does have a problem with it, that’s their own issue.

  8. Deidre and femmeinconnue: Well, in French we call it "l'addition", so thankfully I can avoid all that check/bill nonsense. :)

    Jeanette: I find your comment intriguing. So are you saying that if a woman asks for the check (bill), that indicates that she is in a hurry to leave, whereas if a man asks for the check, it just means that it's time to go? Is the person who asks for the check always in a hurry, necessarily?

  9. As you said, it's a tip-based culture over in the states, right? So they have to swallow their tongues and just accept however it is that you behave at the table. In France, they're allowed to do and say whatever they want because the minute you walk in, no matter how stellar looking or finely decked out in nice clothes you may be (indicating the opportunity for a nice tip), they're judging you. And outwardly, at that.

  10. I did say it was wrong, but I would only speculate if the woman asked.

    I wanted to check if this thinking was a product of my upbringing, so I asked my mother if she would ever ask for the check. When she said no, I qualified, "Even if you're splitting the bill?". To which she replied, "Why would we split the bill?".

    So there you go.

    (To give my mother a little credit, her boyfriend doesn't pay all the time; whoever pays just pays the whole check.)

  11. French restaurants such as Joël Robuchon & Pierre Gagnaire et al in Tokyo have two types of menus. The menu for ladies has no price list. They always assume the gentleman will be picking up the tab.